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Interview with Robert Duvall

Tango & Flash

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Robert Duvall doesn't really qualify as a leading man, and calling him a "character actor" doesn't quite fit either. A "character actor" brings his distinct personality to a series of roles. No, Duvall is probably best described, as David Thomson put it, as one of our greatest "Supporting Actors."

The reason is because no other actor so completely disappears into his roles. It's possible that even today some of his fans consider him an Irishman, as his character Tom Hagen was in the first two Godfather films -- or even Southern, as he was in his 1997 film The Apostle. (He was actually born in San Diego.)

Think about those two characters, and it's difficult to imagine them occupying the same room -- and even less so characters like Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979), Tom Cruise's mentor Harry Hogge in Days of Thunder (1990) or Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Duvall, 72, has always reserved his true passions for his recurring role as film director. He debuted with a 1975 documentary called We're Not the Jet Set and followed that up with the 1983 film Angelo My Love which told a fictional story using real-life gypsies. He directed himself in his third film, The Apostle, and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Now comes Assassination Tango, which not only stars Duvall, but also his 30 year-old girlfriend Luciana Pedraza. It combines Duvall's love of the tango with a more traditional crime story. Duvall plays a hired killer named "John J." who travels to Argentina to do a hit. When the hit is unexpectedly postponed, he finds himself with enough free time to explore the world of tango clubs.

Assassination Tango has the loose, personal feel of a vintage American 1970s film, the kind that Duvall's past collaborators Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Philip Kaufman, Francis Coppola, Sam Peckinpah and Sidney Lumet were once allowed to make. The driving force of the plot -- whether or not John J. will pull off his hit -- does not matter here as much as mood, character and tone.

"It's OK to get away from the plot," Duvall says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "You know the guy's going to do it, so who cares?"

Duvall derived his "hitman" story directly from the underworld aspect of the tango itself. Nevertheless, he's clearly less interested in the criminal aspects of the story than he is in the dance itself.

The actor discovered the tango in the United States roughly 15 years ago when he attended a performance by an Argentine troupe. He says that he really didn't know what he was getting into.

"I saw these guys, these fat guys, old guys, skinny guys, doing this stuff up there. And it was theatrical stuff," he says. "I met the guys, and they said, 'I'll show you a step.' And another guy would say, 'don't listen to him -- he's no good.' They were all bad-mouthing each other. They were real characters. I got to know them, and they thought I was nuts going around watching them."

Duvall's old friend Francis Coppola was also in the audience that night, and the Godfather director was the first to tell Duvall he should make a tango movie. Remaining true to his word, Coppola worked as a producer on Duvall's finished film.

After the tango bug bit him, Duvall naturally traveled to Argentina to see the real thing. "I kinda worked backwards," he says. "Some of those guys, they come from the Milangos and then go to the States. Now, the young professionals dance beautifully but they look like more trained dancers. You can tell the difference when they go to the Milangos to practice and learn from the old guys."

"They were two different things, and you had to try to decide. The old way's better for me. Luciana could do the new thing if she wanted to, with all the fast stuff. But the old way, with the elegance and the walking, is what I like."

Duvall says that he learned a great deal from simply watching the way the old tango guys walked. "They walk the tango," he says.

Of course, the trips yielded more than just dancing. Duvall met and fell in love with the lovely Luciana seven years ago in Buenos Aires.

"It was on a deserted street on a Saturday when they closed all the businesses down," Duvall says. "The flower shop was closed. Had it been open, I never would have met her. I went down the street to a wonderful little bakery and bought some sweets for a gathering I was going to that night. I had my back to her and she approached me."

Pedraza, who grew up in Northern Argentina, did not know American films at all, and did not recognize the famous actor. Still, the couple soon bonded over their love for music.

"She listened to American music, even though she didn't know American movies. She knew that song 'The Most Beautiful Girl' by Charlie Rich. It was amazing!" Duvall laughs and sings a bit of the song for emphasis.

Interestingly, Pedraza had never danced or acted before. For her part in Assassination Tango, she trained in every way she could to become a professional tango dancer, as well as a tango teacher, which she plays in the film.

Now the couple dance together all the time. But how does Duvall rate at the tango?

"I'm OK. I can hold my own and I enjoy it," he says. "My style tends to be elegant and relaxed. But the main thing is that it's a social dance. You're not out to prove anything. It's simple and you take your time."

March 31, 2003

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